Mmusi Maimane | President Ramaphosa, Luthuli House is not an institution of state. Time to stop treating it like one

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Mmusi Maimane writes that we need decisive, deliberate leadership to lessen the power of Luthuli House and strengthen our constitutionally mandated institutions of state.

On Thursday afternoon, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his response to the State of the Nation Address (SONA) debates in Parliament. Wedged between the SONA itself the preceding week and the tabling of the national budget the following week, this response speech offers the president yet another opportunity to place the country ahead of his political party and introduce sweeping changes in governance and government.

The question begs, will he act to neutralise the increasing threat to his government emanating from Luthuli House, or will he cave and prioritise "keeping the peace within the ANC ahead of South Africa's best interests.

Developments over the past week – in particular the manoeuvrings of former president Jacob Zuma, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and the wider "RET faction" – point to a concerted pushback against not just Ramaphosa's presidency, but of our country's critical institutions of state. This was epitomised by Zuma's defiance in ignoring a subpoena to appear before the state capture commission chaired by Justice Zondo.

READ | Susan Booysen: Power, putsches and popularity: The backstory to Ramaphosa's pandemic presidency

No doubt there is more to this act of defiance than what appears on the surface. However, for all Ramaphosa's stated intentions to put the country back on the right path, his notable silence can only mean that he has decided to place more importance on "keeping the peace" within his own political party than on the basic application of the rule of law and justice.

The fault at the heart of this debacle is the undue power that Luthuli House – the ANC's national HQ – has over each and every sphere of government. A party-political head office has for all intents and purposes become the strongest institution of state, while other institutions are forced to bow to its hegemony. This is why electoral reform, as ordered by the Constitutional Court last year, is important. In fact, it's the pathway to ending such overt and excessive power wielded by political parties and giving greater say to voters in which individuals they elect into government.

It cannot be overstated that institutions of state are vital for the survival of any country. They hold the ultimate limit of restraint over political parties and their leaders. The US democracy has recently shown that despite dominant leadership personalities, the president is always held accountable by institutions and ultimately by the democratic process of the country. It follows that where institutions are strong, individual leaders matter less.

Weak institutions

In Africa, for the very fact that institutions are weak, leaders matter more and wield more unbridled power. The rigging of elections in Africa is an example of how weak electoral institutions can be manipulated by individual leaders. Uganda is the most recent depiction of how a leader can undermine the democratic process and become a "democratic dictator" for life.

South Africa finds itself at a critical juncture.

By all indications, we face the threat of accelerating in this direction whereby certain state institutions become subservient to the political decrees of a political party and/or its leadership. And now is the time for President Ramaphosa to put his foot firmly on the brakes. Our very recent history offers a glimpse into what can and will happen if he doesn't. Jacob Zuma's near decade at the helm of South Africa saw the hollowing out of key institutions of state – SARS, the NPA, the SSA, the Public Protector and so on. It has been three years since his election as president of the Republic.

The time for the long game is over – we need decisive, deliberate leadership to lessen the power of Luthuli House and strengthen our constitutionally mandated institutions of state. And this can begin in his SONA debate reply in Parliament on Thursday afternoon.

The modus operandi of Luthuli House, like many other political headquarters, is to do three undemocratic things:

(1) Control the president and his government,

(2) capture the state, and

(3) open up the state coffers to nepotism and patronage.

For starters, our current system makes it that the president and his/her government receive their mandate from the political party to which they belong. The political party acts as the middleman, the broker between the people and the government. That is why, for example, there was very little in substantive difference between the SONA and the ANC's January 8 statement this year. And this extends to every sphere of government.

This allows political parties to deploy weak and agreeable MPs to Parliament, who are instructed by Luthuli House on how to vote on crucial matters, how to chair meetings and who and who not to hold accountable. That elected MPs would vote to approve that the swimming pool at Nkandla was rather a fire pool illustrates the extent of the matter.

Secondly, and in line with the dictates of the National Democratic Revolution, Luthuli House's influence over the state is of paramount importance.

It's the policy of state capture, long before Zuma and the Guptas.

Couched in the Soviet mantra of "cadre deployment", it is Luthuli House that chooses Cabinet ministers, MPs, premiers, MECs, MPLs, DGs, SOE executives and board members, and the like.

Cyril Ramaphosa knows this process intimately, as he chaired the Luthuli House deployment committee for many years while serving as Zuma's deputy president. The net result is that the state becomes the party and the loyalty of the bureaucrats and elected officials is first to the party and second to the people of South Africa.

Corruption triangle

Lastly, the channels to state funds are blown open as connected cronies and cadres can receive tenders and be hired as consultants to the tune of billions of rands. The patronage system is a triangle between Luthuli House, government and its entities, and crooked businesses. The adjudication of tenders is to the personal benefit of members in this triangle.

Anecdotally, I once attended a fundraiser where a business leader informed me that the ANC sought a donation from him and explained that if he made a donation to the President's fund the tender his business had applied for in a particular municipality would be "adjudicated favourably".

It's the simple triangle occurring – the state, the political party and the politician. Corruption is the natural result of such a system.

I argue that the greatest reform we can implement in our nation is to bring the second transition. This requires removing the ANC so that we destroy the system of corruption and remove the Luthuli House stranglehold on South Africa. No leader of the ANC can bring reform. They will always subject to Luthuli House – that's the model.

The new model we are championing is a grassroots movement of active citizens, whereby direct elections is the order of the day. This is the most credible and logical way to ensure leaders in government are accountable to the people and not to smoke-filled back rooms at political party headquarters. Independent, accountable and honest leaders who are chosen by their communities is the way forward.

READ | Ivor Sarakinsky: ANC overlooking oversight and Zondo testimony

Then the opportunity presents itself to professionalise the state and make it more competent.

Attracting the best civil servants means they serve people and are accountable to the people rather than in some instances inept political deployees. We will deal with corruption as and when it rears its ugly head. No protection from political party bosses, funders and special interests. 

We cannot give up and accept that Luthuli House will again choose who our president, Cabinet, premiers, MECs, MPLs, mayors and so on will be.

Removing the ANC and ushering in the direct election of competent, independent and accountable leaders to all spheres of government is the future model of governance for South Africa.

Get on board, Mr President.

- Mmusi Maimane is chief activist of One South Africa Movement.

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